Photo credit: - Photo: 2017

The United States and Russia Relations on Life Support

By Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) – The U.S. sanctions against Russia, passed on July 27, in retaliation for Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election may have ruined relations between the two countries. 

The sanctions targeting Russia’s defense, intelligence, mining, shipping and railway industries, and restricting dealings with Russian banks and energy companies would have crippling effects on the already straddled Russian economy.

The bill may penalize individuals or companies who invest in the construction of Russian energy pipelines, or who provide services for such projects.

President Donald Trump signed the sanctions bill criticizing the legislation. He had no choice as the bill was passed with overwhelming veto proof margins, and it restricts him from lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

House Speaker Paul Ryan commented: “The bill we just passed with overwhelming bipartisan support is one of the most expansive sanctions packages in history.” He added: “It tightens the screws on our most dangerous adversaries in order to keep Americans safe.”

The U.S. imposed sanctions against Russia in 2014, for its involvement with Crimea and Ukraine; in December 2016, President Barak Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two diplomatic properties in retaliation for alleged U.S. election hacking; and in June 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on more than 38 Russian individuals and organizations that have participated in the country’s incursion in Ukraine.

Despite these humiliating sanctions, Russia refrained from imposing symmetrical responses, which is the reciprocal norm in diplomatic affairs. Moscow was hoping for Trump to, at least, return the two Russian diplomatic properties.

Kremlin’s unprecedented retaliation

In keeping with the Russian proverb “Better Late Than Never”, on July 28, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin imposed “tit for tat” sanctions – that amount to the most dramatic diplomatic demarche between the two countries since the Cold War.

Russia ordered the U.S. to cut 755 of its 1,200 diplomatic staff (located in their missions in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok) by September 1, and seized two diplomatic properties – an embassy warehouse and the embassy summer residence by the Moscow River.

Though the Russian sanctions appear disproportionate to those of Obama’s, Putin allows the U.S. to select who leaves Russia – which means Washington can cut its Russian employees. Thus, it is not a mass expulsion of U.S. diplomats from Russia.

“Washington is a source of danger,” remarked Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, and added: “Essentially, the possibilities for normalization of relations in the foreseeable future are closed.”

Referring to the sanctions, Putin said: “It’s impossible to endlessly tolerate this kind of insolence towards our country,” and opined: “This practice is unacceptable – it destroys international relations and international law.”

The EU threatens to retaliate against the U.S.

The European Union (EU) threatened to retaliate against U.S. sanctions on Russia fearing that these may cause collateral damage to European economic interests.

Russia’s Gazprom spearheads the construction of the $10.6 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and is supported by European oil companies such as Austria’s OMV, France’s Engie, Royal Dutch Shell, Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall.

Many Europeans suspect this as a covert attempt by the U.S. to cut off Russian gas and force Europe to buy liquefied gas from the U.S.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission said, “America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”

“Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”

In 2014, the EU did not complain when U.S. imposed sanctions against Russia – in the wake of Crimea’s reunification with Russia, and Moscow’s alleged support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia repeatedly debunked the allegations of interference in Ukraine’s affairs, and pointed out that Crimea held a popular referendum in which the vast majority of Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia – based on the principle of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 of the UN Charter.

Nevertheless, the EU gleefully joined the bandwagon and imposed a series of economic sanctions against Russian individuals and entities – sanctions that extend to date. 

Russia immediately imposed counter-sanctions on Europe, which the UN claims hurt Russia by $55 billion and the EU economy by $100 billion.

Despite EU’s empty threats, its disunited members – especially the Eastern bloc – who only crave for U.S. military equipment and funding – may never retaliate against the U.S. even if the U.S. sanctions hurt them.

Further deterioration – inevitable

As a Russian speaking frequent visitor to Russia, and a fervent observer of Russian foreign policy for over 50 years (no collusion here), I have never seen such abysmal relations between Washington and Moscow.

Judging from the current ‘Russophobia’ and relentless demonizing of Putin by western countries, the bilateral relations fester towards further deterioration. 

Fearing that the U.S. and/or EU may impose further sanctions on Russia, its media has been replete with conjectures possibly available to the Kremlin.

The exasperated Russians suggest: stop selling Russian-made RB-180 rocket engines that the U.S. use to launch military satellites into orbit; ban deliveries of low-enriched uranium that are used by U.S. power plants; withdraw from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); seize assets and investments of U.S. companies in Russia; stop transporting American astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station; halt exporting fertilizer potash to the U.S.; stop titanium shipments to U.S. companies like Boeing; withdraw Russia’s money invested in U.S. Treasuries, etc. But these, indubitably, are mutually beneficial business ventures. 

Russians may be furious but I am confident that Putin would not impose such draconian measures even though he has said: “We, as you know, are behaving with restraint, very patiently, but at some point we will have to respond, it is impossible to tolerate arrogance toward our country forever.” 

Unparalleled bilateral collaboration

Since the Second World War and even during the hostile Cold War era, the U.S. and Russia engaged in many noteworthy projects beneficial to both nations.

For example: The two countries reduced nuclear weapons from 70,000 warheads during the cold war era to current 15,000; joint efforts in the Limited Test-Ban Treaty in 1963, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972; the Apollo-Soyuz project in space where the cold-war rivals met in orbit in 1975; the first joint U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994; and in 1995, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir in outer space forming the largest spacecraft ever in orbit.

The two countries currently cooperate in projects such as the International Space Station (ISS); environmental research in the Arctic; joint research opportunities in the biomedical field, work on counterterrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration and cybercrime, etc. to name a few.

These are not belligerent acts but examples of unparalleled cooperation, and defy the notion that the two nations are at loggerheads.

Therefore, time is opportune for the U.S. and Russia to stop demonizing each other, and set an example by peacefully working together to resolve contentious global issues – as those could only be resolved jointly.

I wish the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers mend their differences and find ways to have civilized diplomatic relations for the sake of global security and peace because the current level of bellicose antagonism could easily trigger a nuclear war that could lead to mutual annihilation.

* Somar Wijayadasa, an International Lawyer was a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations in New York from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 August 2017]

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IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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